A deliciously transgressive work of steampunk speculative fiction ... Along with a cast of characters that includes the real-life Admiral Lord Nelson, Joe and Kite race from Scotland to Spain, trying to sway the forces that led to France’s victory. The butterfly theory, which posits that complex changes often originate from minuscule actions, plays out as Joe ricochets from century to century, trying to help his friends and ensure his own future existence and that of his family. Pulley balances the topsy-turvy nature of time travel by grounding her story in tidbits of naval history and a gradually unfolding queer love story.
... richly entertained by the lavish world-building and breakneck plotting of Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, and it’s best to approach the book knowing as little as possible, in order to experience the reveal of its setting along with its amnesiac protagonist ... Other characters have a habit of withholding crucial information from poor Joe about his surroundings and identity, or supplying it piecemeal, as if they wish to prolong his suspense. This becomes less of an immediate concern once the narrative begins to accelerate through a page-turning procession of kidnapping, imprisonment, romance and naval warfare — the last rendered in compelling, gory detail. Beautiful, surreal imagery appears throughout the novel, too ... If there’s no mystery here, the dramatic irony that takes its place is a fine substitute ... Pulley mostly plays fair with her plotting, even with her sly misdirections, and in the novel’s bittersweet final pages things click neatly into place. Readers of historical fiction who view the genre as a chance to pit their talent for pedantry against the author’s will find a strong opponent ... Clear a weekend if you can, and let yourself be absorbed.
Natasha Pulley poses such a beguiling set of questions at the opening of The Kingdoms that even readers who are resistant to speculative fiction will barrel forward to discover the answers ... Time travel in fiction is much better at posing tantalizing questions than it is at providing satisfying answers, and The Kingdoms is no exception. Though Pulley is a terrific writer, steeping her scenes in atmospheric language and telling detail, her novel, taut at its opening, muddies and slows as it enters its long middle act. Though Pulley is ever clever in how she weaves her timelines together, the book's pace flags as the reader labors to keep everyone straight. There’s also the inevitable problem of lessened stakes – when people can jump between centuries, the outcome of any one conversation or relationship doesn’t matter as much ... For the most part, though, The Kingdoms is a success. Pulley brings much to the table here, including fascinating details about the rough and intimate life on wooden military ships (my favorite was the wine kept at the bottom of the hold, where it would stay chilled) and the pleasant surprise of a queer romance. The Kingdoms is interested not only in the adventure of its historical and imaginative plot, but also in what it would actually feel like to slip out of time.